Book Review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea

Published October 16th 2018

Author: Tahereh Mafi

It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.

Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments – even the physical violence – she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.

But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her – they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds – and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a contemporary young adult novel that follows 16-year-old high school student, Shirin. As a teenage Persian girl living in the months after 9/11, Islamophobia is widespread. I have not lived her life (nor the author’s life as this is semi-autobiographical), but there is a lot going on in Shirin’s head where the reader can easily immerse themselves in her world. As her family moves a lot, the story begins as Shirin and her older brother, Navid, find themselves at a new school to start over again. Both her and Navid find comfort in break-dancing and even start a club at school.

Shirin’s anger at the world ran deep and it was easy to understand her feelings. Not only were the blatant remarks and actions toward her throughout her life due to her background, but there were the microaggressions that add up over time. She keeps everyone at arm’s length and always has her guard up as a form of self-preservation. To the outside world, she appears cold and distant and many of the students avoid her. Since the story is told from her POV, the reader can see why she is this way, and it was easy to empathize with her. I do think the author missed some opportunities to show how the other kids treated her because of prejudice as there were some moments where it was difficult to fully connect to them alienating her for her race or because she was standoffish. It also does not fully address if some of the other kids are just jerks, so they are horrible to anyone no matter their background. Since Shirin perceives it against her, it is difficult as the reader to see the whole picture and I wish there were more showing of how the dislike was directed towards her rather than everyone else.

In her biology class, Shirin is made lab partners with Ocean James, a boy who is a year older and who is fascinated to learn more about her. This whole part was done well as Ocean does not realize the privilege he has in relation to Shirin and does not understand why the two of them together as friends, or maybe more, would be perceived as an issue to the outside world.  Their relationship and getting to know each other takes up most of the page time in this story as Shirin slowly lets Ocean into her world. There is a lot of friction between them as Shirin internally begins to like Ocean and want him around, but at the same time, she wants to keep herself protected. While I loved their relationship developing, I felt that the number of paragraphs took over the story where it started to become too much of a love story and less about everything else going on in Shirin’s life. For me, I love romance in stories, but I do feel there was something missing as there is so much more potential to the writing. Overall, this was a very well-done story and it was clear the author put a lot of emotion into it. I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

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